Grief, Loneliness, and Losing a Spouse

“Every widow wakes one morning, perhaps after years of pure and unwavering grieving, to realize she slept a good night's sleep, and will be able to eat breakfast, and doesn't hear her husband's ghost all the time, but only some of the time. Her grief is replaced with a useful sadness. Every parent who loses a child finds a way to laugh again. The timbre begins to fade. The edge dulls. The hurt lessens. Every love is carved from loss. Mine was. Yours is. Your great-great-great-grandchildren's will be. But we learn to live in that love.”  Jonathan Safran Foer

There are few things in life more likely to lead to depression than losing a spouse, especially for seniors in their twilight years. 

As numerous research studies have demonstrated, spousal bereavement is a major source of life stress that often leaves people vulnerable to later problems, including depression, chronic stress, and reduced life expectancy.   While the grief process usually takes weeks or months to subside, a small minority of bereaved persons experience symptoms for much longer. In many cases, these symptoms can resemble other psychiatric conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) to the point that it is almost impossible for mental health professionals to tell them apart.

While MDD is usually diagnosed according to the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),  psychologists and psychiatrists are cautioned in a footnote to "differentiate between normal grieving associated with a significant loss and a diagnosis of a mental disorder."  In fact, the question of how to tell normal grief apart from pathological depression is still being debated and often raises concerns about misdiagnosing patients who might be wrongly medicated as a result.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.

 

           

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